A History of the Vikings in four parts

A history of the Vikings

By Jim Henderson

In the first part of a four part series, Jim Henderson considers the reasons for the Vikings’ roving way of life, and introduces some of the Longships that they developed to assist with their excursions and conquests. Over the series we will learn about their journeys from Scandinavia to western Scotland, including their ventures to Arran, and about their battles, alliances, and seafaring legacies. Featured image shows a viking village in the Isle of Man.

THE VIKINGS 8th to 13th CENTURY

Part 1

During this period, the Vikings were truly the Lords of the sea. They travelled the Northern Hemisphere braving the conditions of rivers and oceans, such as the North Sea and Atlantic. The Norseman Lief Eriksson (970 – 1020) and crew set off from Iceland and are reputed to have landed on the coast of eastern Canada around 1000 long before the Italian, Columbus who is reputed to have been the first European to set foot in America. His landfall, however, in October 1492 was actually on the Bahamas, then Cuba and Haiti so he never set foot on North American soil.

Around the 8th century land for agriculture was becoming scarce in Scandinavia because of the many fjords in Norway and the dense covering of trees in Sweden and Denmark. The demands of a growing population was too much for the meagre crops and many had had to rely on fish and wild animals to sustain them. So the Vikings began investigating areas further afield, where they could establish communities and work the ground to raise crops for their people.

They travelled by sea making use of the ‘Longships’ a unique clinker design created by the Scandinavians over a period of time.
The earliest design was the ‘Umiak’, an open skinned craft created in the stone ages, which developed into the ‘Nydam’ of oak construction and then into the ‘Kvalsund, a clinker ship, by the 9th century.

The Leidang was a form of conscription in Norway and fleet levy laws remained in place for most of the middle ages. The King of Norway commanded a great sense of respect and loyalty from his subjects and warriors and demanded that freemen should build, crew and furnish the Longships for war, the average size being equipped with sail with up to 50 rowers.

TYPES OF LONGSHIP

The Busse was the largest of the Longships at 150 feet in length with 34 rowing benches, capable of carrying crew, cargo and passengers.

A Busse viking longship

The Dreker was used mainly for raiding and plundering in the 13th century.

A modern replica of the Dreker longship

The Skei was built for speed with more than 30 rowing benches. It was 98 feet in length with a beam of 10 feet capable of carrying a crew of 80. The remains of one built in Dublin around 1042 was found in 1962, buried in a bog, the Oak timbers were used to determine the age of the craft.

The Snekkje was the smallest used in warfare, with 20 rowing benches and a crew numbering 40. The ship was 56 feet long with a beam of 8 feet.

The Snekkje longship

The Karvi was a general purpose vessel, among the smallest of the Longships built. It was 50 feet in length overall with 12/13 rowing benches.

Illustration of two Karvi longships

In the late 700’s and early 800’s AD many Vikings from Scandinavia sailed across the North Sea in their clinker built Longships which were powered by sail and oars and capable of achieving 10-15 knots.

The Vikings were extremely able seamen with considerable nautical skills recording distance tables of their sea voyages extremely precisely only varying about 3 degrees compared with modern satellite technology.

It is known that they sailed to the Faroes, Iceland, Greenland, Newfoundland and many parts of Europe, encountering over 50 cultures as far as the Mediterranean and the Black Sea and, interestingly, according to archaeological evidence, men and women featured in the leadership of the communities which they established or integrated with. Many of the areas in the northern hemisphere they settled in, however, were uninhabited.

The life style of the inhabitants of Norway, Sweden and Denmark was based around family relationships, agriculture and trading with other peoples. They also valued honour in combat and a criminal justice system administered by their community leaders.

The reason for the Norse excursions and conquest of other countries is partly due to their need to establish areas where they could cultivate crops. However, it could have been triggered by a medieval warm period between 800 and 1200 AD as well as their population explosion. Perhaps the events of the 6th Century also had an impact: there were two volcanic eruptions in the tropics between 540 and 547, which caused a dust veil which hid the sun, which, in turn, caused a minor ice age in Scandinavia as temperatures dropped.

At this time, as well as a shortage of land for cultivation, there was also a movement by the members of the lower classes rebelling against the power of the community leaders. Many of these rebels left their Nordic shores to establish communities free from the controls exercised by the nobility. It is also significant that the end of the Viking period in England and Scotland also coincided with the start of another minor ice age around 1300 – 1500 AD in the northern hemisphere which caused widespread famine.

The first Viking exploration to Great Britain in 789 AD was by one Longship, which reached Portland Bay, Dorset in the English Channel but there is no record of them venturing ashore.The first Viking attack on the 8th June 793 AD was a raid on Lindisfarne, where they attacked the island abbey, a centre of learning. As pagans with no religious beliefs they had no compunction about destroying settlements with a Christian doctrine and decimated the relics of St Cuthbert, took possession of valuables and food stores as well as killing the monks in a most brutal fashion, which created a reputation that dogged the Vikings for many years.

It is only in more recent times that the skills of the Scandinavians as explorers, seamen, traders, and ingenious armourers became recognised by historians and archaeologists.

Next month the Viking story will continue with an investigation of their time in Western Scotland.